Reading and Writing Weather

As I write this, the snow is bombing the East Coast where I live. My cat is curled up in my lap, positioned in the beneficent path of the space heater at my feet. Slate coated juncos, black capped chickadees, yellow bellied woodpeckers, mourning doves, and (of course) gray and red squirrels are swarming the seed in the feeder – in this bluster! The wind is whipping the snow as if it was snapping bed linens outside my window. It’s extreme out there, folks.

Fortunately, I have lots to read. I’m loaded up with books by Italo Calvino, Rivka Galchen, Emma Goldman, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, while eagerly awaiting Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters to come in. I just came across her earlier this week and can’t believe I didn’t know of her sooner. Actually, scratch that. It is not surprising that as an African American woman she’d been slighted by many a syllabus. Herenow, I assign you this story. Then snatch up every last thing she’s written, and we’ll compare notes. (I’m not  kidding – let me know what you think.)

Also keeping me warm are client manuscripts. This winter, I’ve been working with short story writers, sketch comedians, poets, novelists, and a doctor working on a nonfiction book that promises to explode the way we think about a major component of healthcare. I love how helping other writers to make their work better also helps me to do the good work on my own.

Speaking of which, I’m excited to tell you that I just found out Junot Diaz took ten years to write The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I’m clocking in at roughly four at this point, so I’m in pretty good stead. Not four continuous years, mind you (I took a year off to fight a casino), but no kidding the seed of the project first came in 2012. It has transformed so remarkably with each round of revision that I have made peace, for the most part, with the time it is taking to bring this book to fruition.

Off to make a fire!

books, Italo Calvino, Rivka Galchen



Revise, revise, revise

Novelist William Gass passed away last week at the age of 93. He was beloved, or so it seems his novels were if the paeans to him on Twitter are to be believed. I confess I’d not only not read him, but not heard of him (that I recall) until his death. He’d probably hate me for that, but then he’d get some writing out of it so I’m not too worried.

What I have now read – or skimmed, to be honest – are some of the posts of aggregated quotes from Gass on writing. I will add at least one of his novels to my ever-expanding to be read list, and maybe you might, too. Meantime, these two passages (as compiled at LitHub) are keepers:

“Something gets on paper, and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised. And then I’m finally at the end.”

—from a 2005 interview with The Believer.

“I write slowly because I write badly. I have to rewrite everything many, many times just to achieve mediocrity. Time can give you a good critical perspective, and I often have to go slow so that I can look back on what sort of botch of things I made three months ago. Much of the stuff which I will finally publish, with all its flaws, as if it had been dashed off with a felt pen, will have begun eight or more years earlier, and worried and slowly chewed on and left for dead many times in the interim.”

—from a 1976 interview with The Paris Review.

There are no shortcuts in writing, much as I’d love cash and prizes for my first drafts. So I am posting these two as fuel. Reminders. Notes to self as I continue the work of revision on my current manuscript. The story of that story is a long one, and I cannot wait to tell you all about it. And I will. Soon as it’s finished. Thanks, Bill. He wouldn’t mind me calling him that, do you think?


2 Readings & A Workshop

Speaking truth to power. I don’t know if Sage College audiences are indeed the power I’d shake a fist at, but that is the theme of The REV Presents reading series this fall at their Troy, NY campus. Asked by beloved poet and friend Matt Klane, I’ll be reading with also beloved poet and friend Sueyeun Juliette Lee on Thursday, September 28.

Exactly one week later, I’ll be joined by former participants in the poetry class I led at Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility, Sean Dalpiaz and Johnny Perez, for a Poetry Lab at Skidmore College. This event is in conjunction with the States of Incarceration exhibit that has been touring college campuses across the US for the past year or two. It’s up at Skidmore’s Tang Museum this fall and features images from McGregor as well as lots of visual and experiential representations of the the US prison system. On October 5, Johnny, Sean, and I will be talking about and reading work from the class.

Exactly one week after that, the Writing Creatively class begins October 12 at The Arts Center in Troy. I love leading this class and being in a room with writers talking, reading, writing, and responding to each others’ work. As I say in the course description, writing well takes practice. This eight week class is an opportunity to practice the craft.

(There is another workshop this fall at Grub Street in Boston (Writing About Politics on Saturday, Nov 4), but more on that later.)

Interior view of Mount McGregor Correctional Facility in Moreau, New York, in the fall of 2015, photograph by Dorothea Trufelman ’16

Women in Translation Month

In honor of #WITmonth, here’s a list of a few interviews and reviews I’ve done that feature women writers whose work has been translated into English. The campaign was founded by Meytal Radzinski in 2014 to deal with the dearth of women writers in translation. You can read more about it and the events it’s spawned here. There are great resources there, books recommended, and good links.

Meanwhile, have a look at three authors I’ve had words with and about. I adore their books, so please buy them! Read them attentively. Then tell friends.

In no particular order:

*”In an age of what some have called High Interiority in literature a la Knausgaard, Ferrante, and the oodles of revelatory memoirs flooding the market, Helle Helle’s intimate novel This Should Be Written in the Present Tense shouldn’t seem out of place….Instead, it turns out we’re in for something quite different.” So begins my review of the Danish author’s first novel to be translated into English for Electric Literature. In my interview of her for Bookslut, she shares great bits about her writing process. “A novel can’t be thought into existence, it has to be written. The hands are always wiser than the head.”

*Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin‘s debut novel Fever Dream was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and has received a ton of rightly deserved attention. I interviewed her for Full Stop where we spoke about the novel living inside the reader, politics, and her thoughts on translation. “[I]t is curious how translation methods can change from one country to another. Germans, for example, they are so analytic, so exhaustive. I met three times for at least two hours with my translator for the last book.”

*Lastly, I reviewed Belgian author Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s 1937 novella La Femme de Gilles for 3:AM Magazine. This was reissued by Melville House as part of their Never Sink series, and in the review I consider, among other things, why now for this particular work. “[W]hy, we might ask, is this book receiving attention now? Is Bourdouxhe’s tale important to recover because this is a woman writing about a woman? Does it not complicate the female experience to have women represented variously?”

For more, many more, recommendations of who to read and what else is going on this month, also check out Susan Bernofsky’s excellent site Translationista.

helle helle
Helle Helle


#Gone Fishing

Well, writing. More accurately, revising, but that includes writing. And also fishing, in a way, though gardening analogies have always come more readily to me for the creative process. Perhaps that’s because I put my hands in dirt waaaaay more than I ever drop bait in water.

However I envision it, next week I’m Kingston bound for a few days with the manuscript. I’m printing that baby out, getting the three hole punch for ring binding, and bringing a pen to take notes on actual pages. I’ll be doing this at the Kingston Writers Studio Retreat, a new venture by writers Sari Botton and Jen Doll. There will be time to write, hike, talk shop, read from our writing, and listen to a talk on Mercury, the planet, not the element. Astrology rather than astronomy, but I’m down for that.

There’s to be a public performance on Saturday, July 15 at 6 PM. There’s a FB event, but here are some details. Come if you’re in the area!

Writers Reading: Summer Camp
Hosted by Kingston Writers’ Studio
Saturday, July 15 at 6 PM – 8 PM

Keegan Ales
20 Saint James St, Kingston, New York 12401

writers reading

It’s hot.

The rain is dripping from the gutters from the fourth rumblestorm today because it’s thick as soup out there and clashing fronts are surging and bursting in the sky. A small fan is pointed at my face. I’ve got my foot up on the computer tower. Next to me is THE CITY ALWAYS WINS by Omar Robert Hamilton and my reading specs balanced on top, waiting for me to finish. I’ll be interviewing him shortly for Full Stop but meantime spending my days under the influence of the urgency of his cadence. What could be more important a topic for literature than revolution? How do we spark a movement? Direct the chaos? How do we stay cool under fire? I don’t know, but pull up a chair and let’s find out.


RIP Denis Johnson

White, White Collars

We work in this building and we are hideous
in the fluorescent light, you know our clothes
woke up this morning and swallowed us like jewels
and ride up and down the elevators, filled with us,
turning and returning like the spray of light that goes
around dance-halls among the dancing fools.
My office smells like a theory, but here one weeps
to see the goodness of the world laid bare
and rising with the government on its lips,
the alphabet congealing in the air
around our heads. But in my belly’s flames
someone is dancing, calling me by many names
that are secret and filled with light and rise
and break, and I see my previous lives.

Denis Johnson, 1949 – 2017

Writing About Politics

Can literary output have a role to play in our political future? Whether or not literature has any impact on politics, I do think we owe it to ourselves and to our readers to reckon with socio-political circumstances in our writing. The question then becomes: how to do this without losing ambiguity or artful nuance – some of the very qualities that make lit an attractive vehicle for addressing these concerns – and still possibly “take a stand”?

I’m so glad you asked!

This what I think about, ruminate on, and write-revise-read-revise-write toward nearly every day. It is the stuff of my current book-length manuscript and many of my short pieces. It is certainly something we worked on in the prison poetry class I taught for eight years. And, of course, there are so many compelling examples in the world of letters to draw on – shoulders to stand on. From all this I’ve devised a day long workshop that I’ll lead in Boston for Grub Street May 13. Here are the details:

Writing About Politics
Grub Street in Boston, MA
Saturday, May 13 — 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM

Are you feeling moved to grapple with the current moment in your writing? Are you concerned that if you tackle political topics in your work, the art will suffer? Whether you have been focusing on politics for some time or are new to considering it for your literary writing, this workshop can help you find interesting entry points for your work. We will read and discuss pertinent passages in a variety of literary genres and write in response. Some of the writers who will guide us include Claudia Rankine, Gloria Anzaldúa, Teju Cole, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Barbara Kingsolver, and others. You will come away with strategies for developing new or existing work as well as a number of new drafts. The exercises can be responded to in fiction, creative non-fiction, poem, essay, or hybrid form.

Writing About Politics Class Flyer
(Look how happy this makes me.)